Blessed Damien de Veuster, ss.cc.
Martyr of Charity and Apostle to the Lepers
Servant of Humanity
Damien was born in Belgium on January 3, 1840. He was the last of seven children. Damien was supposed to inherit the
family business and, in preparation, went to study business administration and
to learn French. While at school, he attended a Lenten Parish Mission and
was inspired with a vocation. It seems that from a young age, Damien was
always "all or nothing." Once he had decided on a vocation he wanted to join
the Trappists since this was the strictest form of religious life.
However, when visiting his brother at the Sacred Hearts Seminary in Louvain, he
was persuaded to join the Sacred Hearts. Since he hadn't studied Latin, he
was first accepted as a lay-brother. Throughout this earliest period
of seminary formation, Damien demonstrated an attraction to austerity that would
persist throughout his life. Despite a robust
constitution, he ate little and, to discipline himself, he slept on the floor.
His brother tutored him in Latin and Damien was then accepted as a priesthood
While Damien was in seminary, his brother was ordained a priest. Then
his brother was assigned to the Sacred Hearts mission in Hawaii. As he
prepared to leave, a typhus epidemic hit Louvain. His brother caught the
disease while ministering to the sick. Since typhus required a long
recuperation, he wasn't able to sail to Hawaii. This left one berth
available for a missionary on the ship. Damien, not yet a deacon, wrote to
the Superior General asking for permission to take his brother's place.
The General gave his permission and Damien left for Hawaii.
Upon arrival in Honolulu, Damien was sent to the windward side of Oahu to
complete his studies. In short order, he was ordained a deacon and then,
on May 21, 1864 he was ordained a priest in Queen of Peace Cathedral, Honolulu.
He was only 24 years old. The Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Maigret, sent him to
assist the missionaries on the Big Island. Damien served there for 9 years.
Shortly before Damien's arrival in Hawaii, leprosy began to spread among the
native Hawaiians. Most probably, leprosy reached the islands from China by
way of the whaling and other commercial vessels transiting the Pacific Ocean.
Hawaiians, having been isolated for hundreds of years, had no natural
immunological defense against the disease. Once established, it spread
rapidly and infected all the islands. This created a crisis for the
Hawaiian Government and the King was persuaded to establish an isolation colony
to stop the spread of leprosy. The site chosen for this colony is a
natural prison on Molokai. A 27 square mile, low lying section of the
island was walled-off by 2000 foot-high cliffs. Throughout the islands,
government agents identified people showing signs of the disease and shipped
them to a detention center in Honolulu. At the center, Western doctors
confirmed the diagnoses. Lepers were then transshipped to Molokai.
The leper colony in Kalaupapa eventually included many Catholics who were in
need of a priest. Bishop Maigret was loathe to ask any one priest to go
and serve them because of the danger of infection and of being quarantined.
At a meeting of Sacred Hearts missionaries, he explained the plight of the
Catholics on Molokai. Every Sacred Hearts missionary volunteered to go.
After more conversation, it was agreed that four priests would rotate through
the colony in three month increments. Damien was the first to go.
During Damien's 16 years at Kalaupapa, many different factors contributed to
his becoming a Martyr of Charity and Apostle to the Lepers. For most of
his time on Molokai, Damien, was the only resident clergyman. Over 16
years, the government became more and more restrictive in terms of who could
live in the colony. At first, spouses and servants were able to accompany
those who had the disease. Government officials were able to transit
freely between the colony and the outside. Over time, the decision was
made that no resident could ever leave the leprosarium. This applied to
Damien who had been able to travel to Honolulu to conduct business related to
Hawaiian kingdom was not rich and the leper settlement quickly strained its
financial resources. When the colony was established, only one dollar ($1) per leper per year had been
allotted to provide housing, food, clothing and medical care. When
Damien arrived, many sick people lacked even the basic necessities. He
became the advocate for the settlement to the government, built houses for
every resident, provided conventional medical care and experimented with new
orchards and imported cattle, built an aqueduct to bring fresh water into the
settlement, expanded the pre-existing St. Philomena's church, and established
two orphanages (one each for boys and girls). The Sisters of the Sacred
Hearts in Honolulu promoted charitable support for the settlement and became
the depot for donated goods and services. As the settlement gained
notoriety worldwide, donations poured in from all over the world. This
was a great relief to the government which tried to provide for the lepers as
best they could.
Before Damien left Belgium for the missions, he visited a shrine to the
Blessed Mother. He asked her for 12 years of missionary service.
It is interesting to note that it was in his 12th year in the leper colony that
he was diagnosed with the most virulent form of leprosy. He lived and worked for 4 more years before
succumbing to the disease on April 15, 1889. He was 49 years old.
On Pentecost Sunday, 1995,Pope John Paul II declared Father Damien among the
"Blessed" and gave him the title "Servant of Humanity." Father Damien's
Feast Day is May 10, the day he arrived to serve the Leprosarium in 1873.